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SPECIAL FITNESS ISSUE: THE FOOT | ESOTERICA MEDICA

When running was not just sport but spectacle

January 01, 2007|Elena Conis

Running is among the oldest of all competitive sports -- in fact, for the first centuries of the Olympics, it was the only sport in the games. Ancient Olympic competitors either sprinted or ran for distance, but the similarity to today's events end there. Ancient poets and writers tell tales of runners (barefoot, bare and slick with oil) tripping each other, cutting corners, pulling competitors' hair to get ahead and even of all-out fights erupting over who crossed the finish line first.

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In the first Olympic games, back in 776 BC, the title of winner went to a man named Koroibos, a local cook who won the games' benchmark 210-yard race.

Koroibos and his fellow Olympians ran naked except for a layer of olive oil, which they slathered on from head to toe before and after any workout. (This ancient locker-room oil was a grade or two lower than the stuff used in kitchens at the time.) The oil prevented dehydration -- and produced a nice, deep tan after a day in the sun.

Glistening with oil, the athletes would parade before the judges in a precontest display of fitness and beauty. (In later years, after other sports were added to the games, some athletes would powder themselves too.)

Evidently, the ancient judges cared as much about looks as they did about performance: An ideal runner, they felt, should be tall, but not too tall, have slim legs but well-built arms, and hands of average size.

To the music of a flute, the runners stretched and warmed-up while spectators in the stands snacked on bread and wine.

Races began at a marble starting line, still visible in Olympia today. The runners' starting postures would seem odd to most modern runners and spectators. They began races from a standing position, arms spread wide, toes hooked into grooves in the marble, putting one bare foot just inches in front of the other.

A rope was stretched taut at chest-height along the row of runners to keep them in line. Archeologists still haven't quite figured out how it was released to signal the start of the race.

In the earliest games, runners sprinted west toward a temple to Zeus, to whom the games were dedicated, and who was reputed to have been a pretty good athlete himself. In later games (long after the temple was in ruins), runners continued their symbolic run to the west.

In longer races, they ran back and forth along the straight track -- but they always ran their last lap in the direction of the god of gods.

Even those long races capped out at a few miles -- three, to be exact. In fact, the only "marathon" ever run in ancient Greece was done by a messenger who had to carry news of war from the city of Marathon to Athens, 26 miles away.

It was the one-lap sprint, called the stadion, that stole the show for the ancient Greeks and conferred immortality on its winner: The year's games were named for the man who finished the stadion first.

The winner also received pine branches and victory ribbons encircling his arms, a crown of olive branches cut from a sacred tree, a hail of music and flowers and an elaborate feast.

And then, of course, he had the knowledge that he had been smiled upon by Nike of Samothrace -- long the ancient winged goddess of victory before she became the inspiration, thousands of years later, for a running shoe.

-- Elena Conis

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